In the opening number of Bright Star, the bluegrass musical playing at the Ahmanson from Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, plucky heroine Alice (a powerhouse Carmen Cusack) belts out “If You Knew My Story” with the addendum that “you’d have a good story to tell,” which is a bit misleading since the story is the weakest part of the show. Everything plays out exactly as expected. It’s not bad, it’s fine, everything is perfectly fine. It’s just completely weightless.
Alice’s life unfolds in two time periods: the twenties, when a somewhat rebellious teenage Alice (she reads books with Damned in the title!) falls for the mayor’s son; and in the forties, where an adult Alice runs the Asheville Southern Journal, and she takes a shine to Billy, a post-war vet and promising young writer. Billy is sweet on Margo, his girl back home, but is making a go of it in that Asheville metropolis. Everyone is chasing their happily ever after, and there’s not much to get in the way of that.
The music is good, banjos seldom make an appearance in a stage musical, much less featured quite so heavily, and toes will tap and hands will clap along, but none of the songs really stand out. The set is simple, a wooden shed houses the band and is shuttered around the stage depending which side warrants use as a backdrop. The dancers kick and flail, and it’s all fine, everything is fine, which might be enough for some people.
Cusack is incredible, and not only good at belting out the showstoppers, but also keeping Alice grounded. I could feel the weight of her sadness in between the lines, from the fourth row in the first balcony. The rest of the cast –Stephen Lee Anderson, David Atkinson, Maddie Shea Baldwin, Jeff Blumenkrantz, Patrick Cummings, Kaitlyn Davidson, AJ Shively- all have their moments, and all handle them just fine. They’re all very fine.
From an execution standpoint, Bright Star works. It’s got a unique sound, perfectly adequate music and acceptable actors performing, and that’s enough for a decent distraction. I couldn’t help but hope for more, though. Something more challenging, more dynamic and thoughtful that could really utilize the talents of all involved. With Martin at the helm I also expected a few more laughs. The ones that are there certainly work just fine. It’s all just fine.
My Grade – C+